Apps in hand, the kids are all right
Here’s one more reason to love technology: It makes it so much easier to keep the kids quiet during Memorial Day car trips. Just toss a tablet or smartphone stuffed with apps onto the back seat.
But which apps? Luckily, there are plenty of good ones. Some, like Apple Inc.’s iMovie, are mainstream apps that are ideal creative tools for children. Others, like Children TV and Famigo Sandbox, are clever little programs that lock out inappropriate content to instantly child-proof your mobile device. And hundreds more are straight-ahead “edutainment” programs that serve up tasty little bites of knowledge, to keep kids’ brains from going stale during the summer.
Lots of the best apps may have already found a place in your child’s classroom. So I paid a visit to the Pine Glen School in Burlington, an unusually tech-savvy K-5 school, to see which apps were getting the kids’ attention.
Forget about endless bouts of Angry Birds. Grace Grinnell and Kristina Wolinski, both 11-year-old fifth-graders, are avid readers who produce video book reviews and post them on YouTube. “We kind of tell whoever’s watching what the book’s about,” said Grace. “We don’t give away the ending,” Kristina added.
They use an iPad 2, the kind with a built-in camera, and iMovie, a $4.99 app that provides a surprisingly powerful set of movie editing features. They shot a video of me declaring that all book reviews should feature explosions, and edited it into something surprisingly entertaining.
A different kind of iPad movie-making tool, Toontastic, is a free app aimed squarely at the small set, letting kids design their own simple cartoon shows by dragging and dropping a variety of odd-looking characters on the tablet’s screen. The software records character movements and uses the iPad’s microphone to let you add spoken dialogue. When the cartoon is done, it can be saved as a replayable video and uploaded to the Toontastic website.
Sometimes it’s easier to kick back and watch somebody else’s videos. Thank you, YouTube. But there’s some pretty nasty stuff at our favorite video site, and kids need protection. Consider Children TV, an app for iPads and Android devices that offers a carefully selected set of YouTube videos, suitable for children. Each video is listed by appropriate age, so you can identify the best choices for your own children or let them go exploring; everything here is safe. Children TV is free for Android and $1.99 for the iPad.
Another free Android app, Famigo Sandbox, offers more comprehensive child safety tools. You set up Sandbox with a visual password — a connect-the-dots pattern you draw on the screen with your fingertip. Create the pattern of your choice, then launch the app and hand the phone to your kid. He won’t be able to place phone calls, send texts, or watch YouTube videos, and it locks out many popular apps that might not be quite right for kids.
You can go to the Famigo website and select which apps to block, or let the Sandbox decide for you. Oddly enough, it didn’t block a rather violent game on my phone, Contract Killer. But the oversight is easily corrected.
Very small kids love to play with touchscreen phones, but you don’t want them calling 911. Try installing PhonyPhone, a cute app for iPhones that simply displays a fake phone interface. A voice speaks the number when a key is pressed — a useful lesson to the little ones. And PhonyPhone says “hello” when the kid presses the “talk” button. You could just buy a cheap toy phone at Walmart, but PhonyPhone is easy to install, and free.
Educational software has a terrible reputation for dullness, but there are many first-rate iPad titles challenge the stereotype. The best of them are so good you’ll be stealing the tablet from your kids. Check out Back In Time, an app that displays a timeline of literally everything, from the Big Bang on up. It’s a general history of the universe illustrated with excellent photos, maps, and drawings, and backed with a moody, but pleasant musical score. At $7.99, Back In Time is more expensive than the average app, but if your kid is the sort who would happily spend hours randomly reading Wikipedia entries, it’s money well spent.
I could go on like this all day; there are thousands of fine child-friendly apps to keep the kids occupied. You should make your own choices, based on the tastes and interests of your children. Back that up with research at a trustworthy site. I’d vote for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit outfit that provides parents with advice on all kinds of media — TV and movies as well as apps. Find it at commonsensemedia.org.
It’s also smart to choose apps that have already been downloaded by many thousands of users. An app with fewer downloads may just be new, but it might be a dog. In all cases, read the reviews posted by other users of an app before trying it yourself. Both Apple’s iTunes app store and the Google Play store for Android devices have a five-star rating system, based on user feedback. Avoid any app with less than a four-star rating.
With a car full of gadgets and the right apps, the holiday road trip should be a good deal calmer this year — at least until the batteries run out.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.